Maudland Bridge Station, Preston, 3rd March 1854
They came like sleepwalkers in nightcaps
mistaking the station for the Land of Nod.
A land of famine in their eyes. Blighted potatoes.
They held their children like bony sacks of spuds.
Alighting like ghosts they padded slipper-foot
onto the platform into our town,
the creak of the hold in their silent heels,
fingers of nothing in their out-stretched hands.
The rage we’d borne against the strikebreakers
fired by a winter of Cotton Lords’ unfairness
wizened like tubers on a rotten mound
before dark eyes and sallow faces.
Though we knew they’d take our jobs,
work for sure without the ten per cent
we dared not wake them from their dream,
shake them from their night-clothes:
their waking death.
This poem is set during the Great Preston Lock Out. On the 15th of October 1853 the Cotton Lords of 36 Preston firms locked the workers out of the mills in response to their demands for the restoration of the 10 per cent cut from their wages during the 1840’s recession.
The lock out took place through a long hard winter during which donations flowed in from across the country and were distributed by the Preston unions to support the hungry often starving dissidents. Their battle cry “ten per cent and no surrender!” was echoed in support.
Still the masters did not accede. In February 1854 they reopened the mills, attempting to force the suffering people back to work. The workers responded by picketing the mills and the lockout became a strike.
The masters decided to import ‘knobstick’ workers from neighbouring towns such as Manchester and from Ireland. In one famous example Irish emigrants were intercepted at Fleetwood, fed at The Farmers’ Arms, then escorted back by union officials.
On the 3rd of March 1854 the strikers heard that a party of Irish strikebreakers would be arriving from Ulster via Fleetwood at Maudland Bridge Station. 2-3,000 people assembled outside. Seeing the strikebreakers they peaceably allowed them to be transferred to Hanover Street Mill.
Many were former inmates of the Belfast workhouse. The Preston Guardian describes them:
‘These people presented a most melancholy sight, nearly all were destitute of shoes and stockings and some were dressed in nightcaps. They included all ages, from the infant in arms to females advanced in years, altogether a wretched specimen of what Irish famine had reduced the peasantry of the Country to.’
My poem attempts to capture this scene.
Maudland Bridge Station closed to passengers in 1930 yet the track was used by goods trains until the 1990’s. The area is now the location of university buildings and student halls yet the train tracks leading into the abandoned Mile Tunnel and memories of the past remain.
David Hunt, A History of Preston, (Carnegie Publishing, 1992)
J. S. Leigh, Preston Cotton Martyrs, (Palatine Books, 2008)